John O'Connor

The first-quarter occupancy numbers are in. If they are not quite dismal, they’re certainly cause for concern.

That’s because assisted living occupancy dipped to 85.7% during the first three months. For perspective, that’s down 1.3 percentage points from a year ago, according to the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care.

To be sure, the usual downer is at it again. By that, I mean absorption can’t keep pace with all the new units to choose from. That’s a big part of the story. Perhaps the biggest part.

But I’m beginning to wonder whether senior living also may have a bit of an identity crisis on its hands.

Consider how senior living markets itself to prospects and their responsible children. It’s all about selling the great experiences to come. Look at any brochure and the message practically leaps off the page: Mom’s going to have a great time here.

It’s not hard to see why giggles, friends and warm surroundings are standard elements of the sell. After all, who wants to commit to a place that promises loneliness, threadbare carpeting and cold scrambled eggs?

But the responsibility operators face is a bit more complicated. First and foremost, Mom needs to be safe. And increasingly, communities must step up their, ahem, clinical care.

Now I realize anything that smacks of healthcare is fighting words for some folks in this sector. But let’s get real.

The only difference between an assisted living resident today and a nursing home resident of 20 years ago is, well, nothing. Both residents have an identical profile.

So the real trick then is to lure entrants by selling lifestyle, and to keep them by delivering amenities and … low-level healthcare?

Licensing issues aside, that’s a combo platter that requires a surgeon’s touch and a cat burglar’s nerves. And as time goes on, the challenge probably is not going to get any easier.

The reality is that arriving residents are likely to keep getting frailer and sicker. Yet the business model and DNA at many senior living organizations puts hospitality first.

I don’t have an answer that bridges that widening divide. But I think I’m beginning to understand why things seem to be getting worse.

John O’Connor is editorial director of McKnight’s Senior Living. Email him at [email protected].